Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Final Empire

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Sanderson puts an impressive new coat of paint on your typical tale about saving the world. Sometimes he even hints at subversion or deviation. Then again, I must be just a hopeful person dying for a good story. They’re not hard to find, and I constantly find seeds of them in bad or decent stories. At some point, though, I worry that I might be just digging to deep hoping to find dinosaur bones in shallow grounds.

The book isn’t bad, but it’s hard to reconcile the unique backdrop with its horribly ordinary structure. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you know how the story goes. A mentor meets a complete nobody. He helps that nobody discover their hidden powers and it turns out this nobody was actually way more powerful than the rest. A crew of good-natured rebels do some jobs all building up to the revolution that’s only missing some Rage Against the Machine

Mistborn is as cookie-cutter as you can get, yet it’s fun. It avoids nearly every bad trope of fantasy. While not injecting anything too subversive, Sanderson writes with enough energy. By trimming the fat, he managed to write a fun fantasy romp that despite stretching to 600 pages never actually loses steam.

Praising a book for what it doesn’t have feels weird. A good book should be defined by what it makes special. I can praise Sanderson for not writing in a bloated way, for not relying so much on worldbuilding but does that sound tempting? Great works don’t earn their position because they weren’t bad, but because they’re good in a unique way. Bad books fail in many departments. Good books are successful in a very specific thing.

Sanderson’s strength isn’t special, but it’s a rarity in modern fantasy. Despite being praised for worldbuilding and a ‘developed magic system’, the novel doesn’t actually rely on these. The magic system only adds some flash to the combat scenes and the worldbuilding is focused on concepts, not details.

His worldbuilding is strange. The commonly praised method of worldbuilding in fantasy is horrible. We’ve seen in that popular disaster by George R. R. Martin. Pile a lot of details, and all you do is bore the audience. Just because a detail exists doesn’t mean it’s important. Even non-fiction books which should be about facts choose which to present. What was Stalin’s preferred method of eating potatoes is most likely irrelevant in a general history of USSR.

So Sanderson avoids piling on these details. He mentions that a lot of great houses exist, but he never provides of a list of them. He drops some names only to show they exist, but the story is focused around one or two or three. This deliberate refusal keeps the reader’s mind on the story, rather than memorizing all the great houses. Imagine how more energetic Game of Thrones would’ve been if Martin trimmed his fat.

He uses this technique often. Names of cities and of people appear, but they always exist only to inform the reader that the world is big. Sanderson avoids writing an entire encyclopedia of his world in the novel. In the end, you will only know the basics about Luthendel, where the Terrisman live and that’s it. By teasing the reader about the parts that aren’t too relevant to the story, Sanderson makes his world feel actually big and makes you wonder what other stories can take place.

As for his magic system, it’s definitely meant for an RPG game rather than a novel. Sanderson is always on the brink of telling you how much mana points the magicians have left. His deviation don’t mean much, since they’re never explored conceptually. The magic is biological in nature, which makes for an inaccessible class of wizards. We see a little of how their culture exists, but not enough. Changing it from mana to consumed metal is a cool aesthetic and it does affect the world’s relationship with metal, but again we don’t see it enough. In a world where metal is both a source of strength and a weak point for a powerful class, how does it affect people’s view of metal and their relationship with it? Mistings aren’t obscure. Metals are integral to humanity, so integral we don’t question out relationship.

At least his system isn’t overly complex. As a way to dress up action scenes and make them more fun, it’s good. The brevity is integral to the action scenes. They consist of set-pieces that connect instead of a blow-by-blow account that’s hard to follow unless you’re a WWE fanatic. He mines the technique of pulling and pushing steel objects for some cool scenes, but they display the weakness of action scenes in novels. Action gains its strength from the visual. Seeing a person getting hit is more affecting than reading “A fist hit a person”. While there’s thrill to hear about a tornado of metal objects, it sounds more like the cure for Hollywood’s sorry state of action movies.

What Sanderson does get right – and what’s pretty confusing – is his characters. There are some archetypes, but they’re distinct. One of the most arresting scenes is between Elend and Vin-as-Valette, and that’s solely because each has subtle speech patterns. The dialogues are engrossing because they feel so real. Breeze and Ham and Kelsier may not be deep, but even the dialogue between Breeze and Kelsier is different. Both are arrogant, but Sanderson lets snobbishness into Breeze’s speech whereas Kelsier talks like he believes himself to be a rock star.

This is why the book works, despite not containing anything extraordinary. It avoids all the flaws of a typical Fantasy novel, but its live characters make its adventure fun. How similar the structure to Star Wars is irrelevant when the characters are completely different but the novel has that same focused narrative. Mistborn isn’t amazing, but it’s something we need – a Fantasy story about saving the world with entertaining characters that’s actually fun.

2.5 mistings out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds